Matters that matter

Joseph Holtum Joseph.Holtum at jcu.edu.au
Sun Mar 5 17:14:56 EST 2000


Plant Edders,

The discussion on student performance is extremely relevant to the present
Australian system in which university departments are paid on the basis of
bums on seats i.e. the numbers game rules. No students = no bums = either
no course or staff redundancies.

The result has been 
(i) competition between disciplines for bums - resulting in a facile
changing of names, 'dumbing down' of content, and demarcation disputes
between disciplines

(ii) conflict of interest - if your job depends on the number of bums, and
you set the exams and decide who passes, what would one tend to do??

(ii) frequent changing of course structures to cope with changing student
flavours of the month (for example, at our university ethnobotany and
mine-site revegetation are "in", any word with physiology or metabolism in
it is now "out")

(iii) A dilemna in small universities such as mine as to how one retains
'difficult' subjects that the bulk of students avoid but the good students
who go on to dop honours, tend to do (in my case, I have to attract 5
students to  each of my 3rd year physiology and ecophysiology courses or
they will be axed automatically).

The overwhelming majority of students who take 1st year botany do so
because they feel that as biology students they should. ie botany is
overwhelmingly a service course. They don't enter the course hating it, but
they have no real interest in it either. I would guess most are expecting a
mundane experience - but BT1020 should be easier than having to do the
alternatives, maths or physics. The challenge is whether we in the botany
dept can attract enough of these students to pursue some botany courses in
2nd and 3rd year. In terms of our numbers in 2nd year:

(i) it is of critical importance that we ensure that the students come out
having enjoyed the 1st year course - the intellectual content of the course
is of lesser importance ie it has to be a buzz rather than academically
informative (I would agree with Grant Cramer on this one).

(ii) we have to accept that, in a system in which students have an absolute
freedom of choice re subjects they take, our numbers will be constrained by
how we are conceived wrt our academic competition (eg if students take 8
subjects per annum and the majority of students are marine biology majors
who take 4 MB subjects and 1 biometrics subject, then there are only 3
electives that the rest of the disciplines are competing for)

In general, if we can get students into 2nd and 3rd year botany courses,
which are smaller and more specialised, the retention is much higher and
staff satisfaction is greater.

In my own discipline of plant physiology - at 2nd and 3rd year levels I
have to compete with other areas of botany, environmental sciences,
zoology, marine biology and biochemistry for a limited number of bums (we
used to call them students, admin now calls them 'effective full-time
student teaching units'!!). It has become clear to me that the traditional
way of teaching physiology using photosynthesis as a central theme no
longer works with our pool of potential students. The majority (and I have
to consider majorities because our system is geared towards majorities) are
bored stupid by photosystems (maybe modern students are more blase about
such processes that we think are wondrous?), and turn-off instantly one
mentions words such as electron or photon. Numbers have been falling for a
few years and are now at critical levels. I have to think of urgent measures.

Next year we are going to try and teach physiology from an ethnobotanical
and plant defence prospective (whaaaat??!!!). The decision is based on a
guess that if students don't know much or care much about plant structure
and function we should use 'human interest' rather than 'plant interest' as
an attractant (in a way we seem to be moving towards the general approach
used in David Attenborough's 'the private life of plants').

We will start by discussing the use of plants, especially Australian
plants, by indigenous and European cultures. Then  after a soft-and-cuddly
'bush tucker man' start to the course, we shall investigate what humans get
from the plants and why those compounds are there (eg starch, where it is,
how it is made and why it accumulates). We shall then move to compounds
plants use to defend themselves against predators and to signal each other-
a nice panorama of fun trivia followed by the same questions of the
underlying physiological information. Finally we shall discuss plant
'defences' wrt the environment - and use that to introduce topics such as
C4, CAM, photorespiration etc.

I don't know if it will succeed as a course - I'll let you know. At least
we can advertise it by using 'in' words like ethnobotany etc! What I do
know is that if I can get students into my 3rd year classes, they come out
having enjoyed them and glad to have done them. The problem appears to be
to get them to do further botany after 1st year.

cheers

Joe


Dr Joe Holtum,
Dept. of Tropical Plant Sciences,
School of Tropical Biology,
James Cook University of North Queensland,
Townsville, North Queensland 4811,
AUSTRALIA.

Facsimile:        61 (int) 07 47 251570
Telephone:        61 (int) 07 47 814391
Electronic mail:  joseph.holtum at jcu.edu.au
Internet:         http://www.jcu.edu.au/fac3/school/tbiol/Botany/jamh.htm
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